We recently remarked, in regard to the World War 2 spy Augustin Preucil, that “We are, as a rule, opposed to the death penalty”. More specifically, although we do not oppose the death penalty on principle, we are opposed to its use in advanced countries under present conditions. An anonymous reader asked why.
It is because human beings are valuable. Destroying one requires justification. We do not mean that as a pious slogan or aspiration. Even very bad people are valuable in the literal sense that their brains contain irreplaceable knowledge from which innocent people might benefit. This might range from practical information about crimes that others might be planning, to memories of the experiences and bad decisions that made them criminals (which might interest historians and psychologists in the future),
to the knowledge of how to put a smile on their own children's faces.
This value is finite, but it might be large, and paradoxically, sometimes bad people are valuable precisely because they are so bad. A couple of days ago, as Bill Whittle put it: “two of the most malignant and cruel mass murderers, rapists and torturers to ever walk the earth have departed the planet”. Saddam Hussein's sons. Since they apparently chose to die rather than be arrested, the issue of the death penalty does not arise, but suppose they had been captured alive. Surely taking such prisoners would have been much like finding a stack of fat dossiers marked “WMD Concealment Plans”, “Our Agents in the US”, and “Secret Deals With France”. Could it be right to burn such dossiers half read, just to give some bad people “what they deserve”?
Yes, sometimes it could. Sometimes the trial and judicial execution of the tyrant is a legitimate war aim. But it also seems obvious that at other times there is more to be gained by using the information in the tyrant's brain to save lives, prevent future wars and advance human knowledge. And what is true of great tyrants can be true of petty murderers too. Moreover, if we accept that sometimes it is right to keep bad people alive precisely because they have committed terrible crimes, then we have a further argument that the death penalty should be reserved not just for exceptional crimes but for exceptional situations: for can it be right to say to two murderers: “you will be spared because an evil as great as yours needs to be studied, but you will die for your crime because it was not evil enough”?